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Shang Yang , the Great Ch'in Reformer
By Xinfajia
2008-02-11 09:13:02

(An excerpt, based on Shih-chi by Ssu-ma Ch’ien, from J.J.-L.Duyvendak's “Introduction” to his translation of The Book of the Lord Shang.)


Shang Yang is a person of considerable interest in history. He was one of the descendants, by a concubine, of the Kiung-sun family of the Wei state (one of the seven “Warring States” of ancient China). In his youth, he was fond of the study of criminal law; he served Kung-shu Tso, the Minister of Wei, and became hung-shu-tzu, a post responsible for the education of the sons from the princely families.

Kung-shu Tso knew that he was capable, but before presenting him at court, it so happened that (Kung-shu) Tso fell ill. King Hui of Wei went personally to inquire after his illness and said :

— Your illness is too serious not to speak about it: who should be Chancellor in the future?
Kung-shu Tso said:

— My chung-shu-tzu, Kung-sun Yang, though young still in years, has talent. May the King be pleased to listen to him in all state affairs.

    The King was silent. When the King was on the point of leaving, Tso bade everyone go out, and said:
— If Your Majesty will not listen to Yang, nor employ him, then You should put him to death and not allow him to leave the country.

    The King assented and departed. Kung-shu Tso called Yang, and taking leave of him said :

— Today, the King inquired of me who could be appointed Chancellor, and I mentioned you. From the King’s appearance. I believe he did not agree with my suggestion. I then placed the interest of the King before that of the subject, and therefore said to the King, that if he were not going to employ Yang he should kill him, and the King agreed to my suggestion. You had better leave as soon as possible or else you will be arrested.

    Yang replied :
— If the King does not act on your words to appoint me, how should he act on your words to kill me ?

    In the end he did not leave.

    As soon as King Hui had left, he said to his entourage:
— It is regrettable that Kung-shu is so ill! He desires me to employ Kung-sun Yang as state councillor — is this not absurd?

    As soon as Kung-shu had died, Kung-sun Yang heard that Duke Hsiao of Chin had issued an order, inviting the capable men throughout the country, in order to restore the heritage of Duke Mu, and to recover the occupied territory in the east. He, thereupon, went westward to Chin and through Ching Chien, a favourite of Duke Hsiao, obtained an interview with Duke Hsiao. When Duke Hsiao received Wei Yang, they talked for a long time about affairs, but Duke Hsiao repeatedly fell asleep and did not listen. At the conclusion of the interview, he was angry with Ching Chien, saying:

— This guest of yours is a good-for-nothing, how should he deserve to be employed ?

    Ching Chien reproved Wei Yang, who replied :

— I talked to the Duke about the Way of the Emperors, but his interest was not awakened.

    After five days he (Ching Chien) again requested that Yang be given an audience. At this second interview between Yang and Duke Hsiao, although, there was an improvement, yet he did not strike the Prince’s attention. When it was over, Duke Hsiao again reproved Ching Chien, who in turn reproved Yang. The latter said :

— I talked to the Duke about the Way of the Kings, but I did not get my argument home.

    He (Ching Chien) requested that Yang be again given an audience, and when Yang was received by Duke Hsiao, the latter liked him, without, however, employing him. At the conclusion, when he had gone, Duke Hsiao said to Ching Chien :

— Your guest is an interesting man to talk to !

    Yang said:

— I spoke to the Duke of the Way of the Lords Protector and he was inclined to make use of it. If indeed he will have another interview with me, then I shall know. When Wei Yang had another interview with Duke Hsiao, the Duke, in talking with him, did not himself notice that his (Wei Yang’s) knees had advanced on to his mat. He talked with him several days without being tired of it. Ching Chien said :

— How have you made such an impression upon our Prince? He is extraordinarily pleased with you.

    Yang replied :

— When I talked to the Prince of the Way of the Emperors and Kings and made comparisons between the Three Dynasties, the Prince said: «This takes a long time and is a distant ideal. I cannot wait! Besides, capable princes have always made their fame shine through the world, during their own lifetime, how can one anxiously wait several thousand years, in order to become an emperor or king?» When, therefore, I spoke to the Prince of the methods of making a state powerful, he was greatly delighted with them. However, as far as virtue is concerned, it is difficult to compare them with those used by the Yin and Chou dynasties. As soon as Duke Hsiao employed Wei Yang, the latter desired to alter the laws, but the former feared that the Empire might find fault with him, whereupon Wei Yang said:

— He, who hesitates in action, obtains no fame ; he who hesitates in affairs, gains no merit. Moreover, he who
conducts himself as an outstanding man, is, as a matter of course, disapproved of by the world, and he, who has thoughts of independent knowledge, is certainly despised by the people. The stupid do not even understand an affair, when it has been completed, but the wise see it before it has sprouted. One cannot let the people share in the thoughts about the beginning of an affair, but they should be allowed to share in the rejoicings over its completion. He, who is concerned about the highest virtue is not in harmony with popular ideas; he, who accomplishes a great work, does not take counsel with the multitude. Therefore, a sage, if he is able thereby to strengthen the state, does not model himself on antiquity, nor, if he is able thereby to benefit the people, does he adhere to established rites.

    Duke Hsiao expressed his approval, but Kan-Lung said :

— Not so. A sage teaches without changing the people, and a wise man obtains good government, without altering the laws. If one teaches in accordance with the spirit of the people, success will be achieved without effort ; if one governs holding on to the law, officials will be well versed in it and the people will live quietly by it.

    Wei Yang replied :

— What Lung holds is the point of view of the man-in-the-street. Ordinary people abide by the old customs and scholars are immersed in the study of what is reported (from antiquity). These two kinds of people are all right for filling offices and for maintaining the law; but they are not the kind, who can take part in a discussion, which goes beyond the law. The Three Dynasties have attained supremacy by different rites, and the five Lords Protector have attained their protectorships by different laws. A wise man creates laws, but a foolish man is controlled by them; a man of talent reforms rites, but a worthless man is enslaved by them.

    Tu Chih said:
— Unless the advantage be a hundredfold, one should not reform the law ; unless the benefit be tenfold, one should not alter an instrument. In taking antiquity as one’s example, one makes no mistakes, and in following established rites, one commits no offence.

    Wei Yang replied:

— There is more than one way to govern the world, and there is no necessity to imitate antiquity, in order to take appropriate measures for the state. Therefore, T’ang and Wu succeeded in attaining supremacy without following antiquity, and the Hsia and Yin dynasties perished, without rites having been altered. Those, who acted counter to antiquity, should not be condemned, nor should those, who followed established rites, merit much praise.

    Duke Hsiao said :

— Excellent !

    He made Wei Yang Tso-shu-chang (Chancellor). Finally he fixed the mandate by which the laws were altered. He ordered the people to be organized into groups of fives and tens mutually to control one another and to share one another’s punishments. Whoever did not denounce a culprit would be cut in two; whoever denounced a culprit would receive the same reward as he, who decapitated an enemy; whoever concealed a culprit would receive the same punishment as he, who surrendered to an enemy. People, who had two males or more (in the family), without dividing the household, had to pay double taxes. Those, who had military merit, all received titles from the ruler, according to a hierarchic ladder. Those, who had private quarrels, were punished according to the severity of their offence. Great and small had to occupy themselves, with united force, with the fundamental occupations of tilling and weaving, and those who produced a large quantity of grain or silk, were exempted from forced labor. Those, who occupied themselves with secondary sources of profit, and those who were poor through laziness, were taken on as slaves. Those of the princely family, who had no military merit, could not be regarded as belonging to the princely clan. He made clear the distinctions between high and low, and between the various ranks and degrees, each according to its place in the hierarchy. He apportioned fields, houses, servants, concubines, and clothes, all differently, according to the families. Those, who had merit, were distinguished by honors; while those who had no merit, though they might be rich, had no glory whatever. When the mandate was already drawn up, but still unpublished, fearing that the people would not believe it, he placed a pole of 30 feet near the south gate of the capital, and having summoned the people, said that he would give ten ounces of gold to anyone, who could remove it to the north gate. The people thought it strange, but there was no one who dared move it. Thereupon, he said that he would give fifty ounces of gold to anyone who would remove it. There was one man, who removed it, and forthwith he gave him the fifty ounces of gold, to make it clear that he deceived no one. Finally the mandates were published. When they had been enforced upon the people for the term of a year, the people of Ch’in, who came to the capital and at first said that the laws were not appropriate, could be counted by the thousand. Then, the Crown Prince infringed the law. Wei Yang said:

— It is owing to the infringements by the highly placed, that the law is not carried out. We shall apply the law to the Crown Prince; as, however, he is Your Highness’s heir, we cannot subject him to capital punishment. Let his tutor, Prince Ch’ien, be punished and his teacher, Kung-sun Chia, be branded.

    The following day, the people of Ch’in all hastened into (the path of) the law. When it had been in force for ten years, the people of Ch’in greatly rejoiced: things dropped on the road were not picked up; in the mountains there were no robbers; families were self-supporting, and people had plenty; they were brave in public warfare and timid in private quarrels, and great order prevailed throughout the countryside and in the towns. From among those of the people of Ch’in, who had at first said that the mandates were inappropriate, some came to say that the mandates were appropriate. Wei Yang said :

— These are all disorderly people; they should be banished to the frontiers.

    Thereupon, none of the people dared to discuss the mandates. Then was Yang appointed Ta-liang tsao (a high military rank), and at the head of an army he laid siege to An-i in Wei, and conquered it. After a lapse of three years, he built pillars for the issuing of mandates and constructed a palace at Hsien-yang. Ch’in moved its capital from Yung thither, and an order was issued forbidding fathers and sons, elder and younger brothers from living together in the same houses; the small cities, villages and towns were to be combined into districts, hsien, over which he placed order to obtain arable land he opened up the longitudinal and horizontal paths and the border country, and the fu and shui taxes were equalized; he standardized weights, scales, and measures of quantity and length. After the orders had been in force for four years, Prince Ch’ien again infringed the law, and his nose was sliced off as punishment. After five years the people of Ch’in were rich and strong, and the Son of Heaven sent a present of sacrificial meat to Duke Hsiao, and all the feudal lords congratulated him. In the following year, Ch’i beat the army of Wei at Ma-ling and captured their crown prince, Shen, and killed their general, P’ang Chüan. In the following year, Wei Yang counseled Duke Hsiao as follows:

— The relations between Ch’in and Wei are like a man with a disease in his stomach and heart. If Wei does not annex Ch’in, Ch’in will annex Wei. For what is the situation? Wei occupies the country west of the mountain passes and has its capital in An-I ; it has the Yellow River as frontier in common with Ch’in, but it alone usurps all the advantages of the country east of the mountains. If it is successful, then it will come westward to invade Ch’in, but if it suffers reverses, it will still keep its territory in the east. Now considering, on the one hand, the ability and wisdom of Your Highness, and the prosperous state of the country, and on the other hand, the fact that Wei, in the past year, has suffered severe defeats from Ch’i, and that all the feudal lords have defected from it, we should avail ourselves of this time to attack Wei. If Wei is unable to withstand Ch’in, it will certainly move its capital eastward, and if it does so, Ch’in will be able to rely on the natural strength of the river and mountains, so that in an easterly direction, we shall be able to control the feudal lords. This is an undertaking worthy of an ancient emperor or king!
Duke Hsiao consented and sent Wei Yang, at the head of an army, to attack Wei, while Wei sent Prince Ang at the head of its army to engage him in battle. When the armies were opposite each other, Wei Yang sent a letter to the general of Wei, Prince Ang, saying:

— Originally, I had friendly relations with you, and now we are the generals of two different countries; it is unbearable that we should fight each other, and so I suggest that we have a personal interview, make an alliance with music and drinking, and desist from war, so that Ch’in and Wei may have peace.

    Prince Ang agreed to the proposal; they met and made an alliance, and when all was over, sat drinking, when suddenly armed soldiers, hidden by Wei Yang, sprang forward and captured Price Ang. Following up this advantage, they attacked his army and completely destroyed it and then returned to Ch’in. King Hui of Wei, his army having been repeatedly beaten by Ch’i and Ch’in, being depleted of resources within the state and daily becoming weaker, was afraid, and sent a messenger to cut off the territory, west of the river, and to cede it to Ch’in, so as to make peace. Wei thereupon left An–I and removed its capital to Ta-liang. King Hui of Wei said:

— I regret that I did not follow the advice of Kung-shu Tso.

    When Wei Yang had defeated Wei, on his return to Ch’in, he was awarded fifteen cities in Shang, as fief, and was called the Lord of Shang. When Lord Shang had been Chancellor of Ch’in for ten years, the majority of the members of the princely family and of the nobility bore him a grudge. Chao Liang went to see Lord Shang, who said:

— I have had the privilege of having been introduced to you by Meng Lan-kao. May I now ask to have your intercourse?

    Chao Liang replied:

— I dare not hope for this. K’ung Ch’iu has said: «Where able men are promoted, a virtuous ruler comes to the front, but where men of no merit are assembled, a king of the whole empire will pass into the background.» I am a man of no merit and, therefore, I dare not receive your commands. I have heard it said that to occupy a position for which one is not qualified, is called “being covetous of position”, and to have a reputation, to which one is not entitled, is called “being covetous of fame”. If I were to listen to your idea, then I fear I should be one, who covets both position and fame. Therefore, I dare not listen to your instructions.

    Lord Shang said :

— Do you not approve of the way in which I govern Ch’in ?

    Chao Liang replied :

— He, who hearkens with the inner ear, is a man of quick hearing, he who turns his eyes inwards, is a man of clear vision, and he who conquers himself is said to be strong. Shun of Yü. had a saying: «He who humbles himself is superior» The best thing for Your Lordship would be to follow the Way of Shun of Yü. There is no need to ask me.

    Lord Shang laid :

— Formerly, the Jung and Ti barbarians of Ch’in, in their teaching, knew no difference between father and son, and they lived together in the same room. Now I have altered and regulated their moral teaching and have made distinctions between men and women. On a grand scale I have constructed pillars for the publication ofmandates, and have arranged things in the same way as they are in Lu and Wei. Seeing how I govern Ch’in and comparing me with Wu-ku-ta-fu, which of us do you think the abler?

    Chao Liang replied :

— The skins of a thousand sheep are not worth the armpit of one fox; the silent approval of a thousand men is not worth the frank word of one scholar. Wu-wang became great because of the frank counsels of his ministers ; Chou of the Yin dynasty perished because of the silence of his flatterers. If Your Lordship does not really disapprove of Wu-wang, then I should like to ask permission to speak sincere words, during a whole day, without suffering punishment therefore.

    Lord Shang said :

— There is a saying: Pleasing words are adorned, direct words are real; bitter words are medicine, sweet words cause disease. If you are really willing to set forth, for a whole day, your sincere views, it will be medicine to me. I want to serve you as my master, how can you then still further excuse yourself ?

    Chao Liang replied :

— Wu-ku-ta-fu was a rustic from Ching. When he heard of the ability of Duke Mu of Ch’in, he desired to see him, but as he had no travelling money, he sold himself to a stranger from Ch’in, wore a coarse shirt and fed oxen. After the lapse of a year, Duke Mu heard about it and raised him from beneath the mouths of oxen and placed him above the people. No one in the state of Ch’in dared feel offended at this. When he had been minister of Ch’in for six or seven years, in the east he had conquered Cheng, three times he had established a prince in Chin, and once he had saved the Ching state from disaster. He issued his instructions within the borders of his fief, with the result that even the people of Pa brought tribute; he showed his favors to the feudal lords and even the eight tribes of the Jung barbarians came to submit. Yu-yü, hearing about it, knocked at the barrier and wished to see him. The way in which Wu-ku-ta-fu was councilor of Ch’in was, that, when he was tired, he did not sit in a carriage, in summer he did not spread out a sunshade, when he traveled in the country he did not have carts or mounts following him, nor men carrying shields and lances. His merits were preserved in the stores and granaries, and his virtuous conduct was displayed to later generations. When Wu-ku-ta-fu died, the men and women of Ch’in shed tears, the children stopped singing, the threshers ceased to chant, while wielding their flails. Such was the virtue of Wu-ku-ta-fu. Now, as for you, you have been received by the Prince, because you had the favorite, Ching Chien, as your patron; therein lies nothing to give you a claim to fame. As councilor of Ch’in, you do not concern yourself over the people, but you grandly build pillars for the publication of mandates; therein lies nothing that gives you a claim to merit. You punished and branded the tutor and teacher of the Crown Prince, you afflict and wound the people with severe punishments — this piles up hatred and breeds disaster. Reforming the people, by instructing them, goes deeper than the mere issuing of commands; making the people imitate the good example of the ruler is more expeditious than issuing mandates. Your Lordship takes improper measures and makes external alterations, but there is nothing that can lay claim to the name of instruction. Moreover, your Lordship sits with your face to the south and calls yourself “I, who am alone” and daily you restrain the nobles of Ch’in more. The Shih-ching says :

Look at a rat, it has its limbs — but a m an shall be without ceremonial behavior ! A man who has no ceremonial behavior, how is it that he does not die at once.

    Looking at it from the point of view of this ode, there is nothing which gives you a claim to long life. Already for eight years has Prince Ch’ien bolted his door and has not gone out. Your Lordship has also killed Chu Kuan and branded Kung-sun Chia. The ode says :

He who obtains men’s favor, flourishes, he who loses men’s favor, collapses.

    In all these matters there is nothing that gives you a claim to having obtained the favor of men ! Whenever your Lordship goes out, tens of carriages follow behind, the escorting carriages bear  arms, and men of great strength and “with ribs joined together” act as the third on the war chariots, men, who carry spears and bear halberds and lances, run alongside the carriages. Whenever one of these precautions should fail, your Lordship would certainly not go out. The Shu-ching says:

H e who relies on virtue, prospers, but he who relies on force, perishes.

    Your Lordship’ s peril is like that of the morning dew. Do you still expect that your years will be prolonged and that your age will be increased! Why then do you not return your fifteen cities, and water your garden in a rustic spot, encourage the King  of Ch’in to bring to the front the scholars from their mountain peaks and grottoes, to nourish the old, to maintain the orphans, to respect fathers and elder brothers, to give rank to those who have merit and to honor those who have virtue, in order to have peace, to a slight extent. Your Lordship will still covet the riches of Shang and Yü, enjoy the privilege of instructing the state of Ch’in and accumulate the hatred of the people. But if the King of Ch’in should, of a morning, leave his guests and no longer stand in the Court, how slight would be the chance that the state of Ch’in would maintain your Lordship ! You would perish in no more time than is needed to lift up a foot!

    The Lord of Shang did not follow this counsel, and, five months later, Duke Hsiao of Ch’in died, and the Crown Prince was set up as his successor, The partisans of Prince Ch’ ien accused the Lord of Shang of planning a rebellion. Lictors were sent to arrest him, but he had fled to a place in the passes. When he desired to lodge at an inn, the inn keeper, not knowing that he was Lord Shang, said:

— According to the law of the Lord of Shang, whoever shall receive at his inn guests, who cannot be identified, will be punished.

    The Lord of Shang heaved a sigh, saying:

— Alas, that the worthlessness of the law should reach such a point!

    He left and went to Wei, but the people of Wei, who hated him for having tricked Prince Ang and for having defeated the hosts of Wei, refused to receive him. When the Lord of Shang wished to go to another country, the people of Wei said:

— The Lord of Shang is a rebel of Chin; as Ch’in is a powerful country, when its rebels come to Wei, we have no choice but to send them back.

    Thereupon, Lord Shang was forced to re-enter Ch’in. As soon as the Lord of Shang had re-entered Ch’in, he hastened to the cities of Shang, and, combining with his followers, raised an army in these cities and marched to attack Cheng. Ch’in sent an army, which attacked the Lord of Shang and slew him at Min-ch’ih in Cheng. King Hui of Ch’in had him torn to pieces by chariots as an expiatory punishment, saying:

— Let no one rebel like Shang Yang!

    Thereupon, he exterminated the family of the Lord of Shang. The Great Historian says: «The Lord of Shang was naturally, in character, a hard and cruel man. When we find in his story that he tried to impress Duke Hsiao by the methods of the Emperors and Kings (we may be sure that) what he held forth was frivolous talk and did not represent his real nature. Further, after having succeeded in obtaining employment through the introduction of a favorite, he punished Prince Ch’ien, betrayed the Wei general, Ang, and did not follow the advice of Chao Liang, all of which facts show clearly that the Lord of Shang was a man of little favor. I have read the books on “Opening and Debarring ”and on “Agriculture and War”, which are in keeping with the deeds he did. There is reason enough why he should have finally left a bad reputation in Ch’in.

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